Sunday, 3 August 2008

Does coming first mean gold?

China will be very much in focus as we are about to be inundated by 24/7 media coverage -- the BBC is supposedly taking 470 people -- of the Olympic games less than a few days away in Beijing. But as the recent furore over the Chinese authorities restricting internet access for journalists escalated and then retreated, one thing is for sure: reporters may be writing about China's many gold medals at the events, but it may be in Research and Development (R&D) where China will be more satisfied about surpassing the US.

When I was a PhD student -- seemingly a long time ago -- at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) in Stuttgart, many of the seven main departments were brimming with Chinese researchers. At one point, the group meetings seemed to contain more Chinese scientists than German. Indeed, the MPI's are quite international centers for research, which are are geared around cutting edge facilities, high levels of funding and under the provision that no-one is required to do any teaching. Perfect places to quickly increase your knowledge of a myriad of experimental techniques and practices.

When I asked most of the Chinese researchers, who usually stayed on average around 2 years at the MPI, were they would be going next. Rather than saying going to the US or even staying in the research intensive environment of the MPI, most said they are going back to China, even some armed with government incentives such as a rent free house or a car.

But if this was a real government initiative to pull some of the researchers back from going abroad, it seems to be working. Productivity -- loosely defined as the number of papers with at least on researcher based or with formal affiliation to China -- has rocketed in the past few years. In physics more than 22 000 papers were published with one Chinese author, a five-fold increase from 2000. This figure has already surpassed the UK, France and Germany, and on the current trend will overtake the US in 2012 -- or in time for the next Olympics if you like.

Some research areas that I looked into for a recent article in this month's PhysicsWorld showed that China was racing ahead in nanoscience, publishing almost 13 000 articles in 2007, quantum information and high temperature superconductivity. Indeed, recently in the case of the latter, this rise has been most obvious. Ever since Japanese researchers found superconductivity at 26 K in an iron-based material in March, Chinese researchers have been at the forefront experimentally, having many of the breakthroughs themselves, such as increasing the transition temperature -- the temperature at which the material loses its electrical resistance -- to 55 K.

But the rise in quantity is not a loss in quality. The number of Chinese researchers publishing in Physical Review Letters, Nature and Science has also been increasing in the last few years. Particularly in Nature it has exploded, almost a ten fold increase from around 10 articles per year in the 1990's to 111 in 2007 -- though this may, or may not, reflect the tendency for Nature to publish a good fair share of papers in nanoscience.

But with China aiming to increase its spending on R&D from 1.4 % to 2.5 % in 2020, its not only going to be quick off the starting blocks, but seems to be in for the long distance.